Just shy of 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan, still recovering from surgery on his left hand, sat down behind the Resolute Desk and bid farewell to the country that he had served as president for 8 years. In an evocative speech that ran roughly twenty minutes, Reagan stayed away from politics and, instead, spent these last precious minutes with the American people outlining the political vision that had guided him for the previous thirty years of his adult life.
To this day, Reagan’s presidential farewell address remains the clearest and most concise expression of modern American conservatism by any political figure to date, before and since. Perhaps you are too young to have seen it the first time around or maybe you simply haven’t watched it in a long while. Whether you consider yourself a conservative or not, please take a moment and watch it now.
Whether you agree in whole, in part, or not at all with Reagan’s politics, let’s agree that Ronald Wilson Reagan could be considered a “subject matter expert” on American Conservatism. If he said something was Conservative, then that is what is Conservative. If something does not mesh with Reagan’s Conservatism, then it’s safe to say that it does not mesh with American conservatism.
This is our measuring stick. So what does our measuring stick look like?
“…I wasn’t a ‘Great Communicator’, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation…”
In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of “Making America Great Again“, though what he believed made America great was rooted in the fundamental pursuit of economic, political, and individual freedom. In 1975, Ronnie sat down with Manuel S. Klausner for an interview published in Reason Magazine, and said, “If you analyze it, I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism… The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.“
During his presidential farewell address 14 years later, Reagan again echoed this idea when he said, “…I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: as government expands, liberty contracts.” And 25 years earlier, Reagan communicated the exact same idea while stumping for then presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, “This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.“
At its very core, Ronald Reagan’s Conservatism necessarily opposed government power and, as he noted in his Goldwater speech, preserved the principles of self-government by “We the People“, and not, as it is today, 536 politicians who dictate our private health insurance decisions, what kinds of light bulbs we can use, how much we must be paid to wait tables or sweep floors, what types of cars we may buy, and even if we may drink raw milk. This is Conservatism, which will undoubtedly come as a shock to many Republicans.
So what happened to Reagan’s conservatism? Honestly? Nothing happened to it.
“We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise – and freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”
After the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, the political spark that created the Republican Party went away. Slavery was eradicated, and the Democratic Party had taken over Civil Rights. The GOP spent the years after the New Deal in perpetual semi-obsolescence, with no coherent message, no coherent values, and thus no coherent elections. For decades, their few victories were based on foreign policy, military readiness, and, ultimately, the price of government. Since foreign policy and military readiness are just budgetary arguments themselves, the Republicans only really ever talked about price.
After almost half a century of political irrelevance, there came a tiny spark that, for the briefest moment, caused a drowsy Republican Party to stir and stare bleary eyed at a right-wing loon shouting about Liberty and Freedom. Barry Goldwater’s fiery brand of Libertarian-Conservatism caught the 1960’s GOP completely off guard, creating a chorus of vocal critics. To these critics, Barry defiantly declared, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Sadly, Goldwater ultimately lost, and the Grand Old Party rolled over and went immediately back to price politics irrelevance.
Between 1964 and 1980, American politics shifted further to the left, but a bad economy created an opportunity to unseat the incumbent Jimmy Carter. Again, there was a contentious battle for the GOP nomination, with the race finally coming down to the very traditional “price of government” conscious George H. W. Bush facing off against another fiery Libertarian-Conservative named Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s Conservatism was so completely out of step with the price obsessed GOP that the elder Bush famously quipped that Reagan’s budget plan was “Voodoo economics“.
Then a crazy thing happened. As it turned out, people liked hearing about Liberty, Freedom, and feeling reconnected to the Founding Fathers. They liked the idea that America is special because it’s free. Reagan won and won big.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of that – of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Reagan’s Libertarian-Conservatism blew the doors off of everything the Republicans thought they knew about themselves and the American electorate. For a precious moment, Liberty reigned again. Unfortunately, Reagan’s American conservatism still remained an anomaly in a party of price obsessed accountants. As soon as Reagan passed the torch to George H. W. Bush, the elder Bush talked a really good Liberty game, making all the right noises about continuing the Reagan Revolution and even famously promised, “Congress will push me to raise taxes and I’ll say no. And they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say, to them, read my lips: no new taxes.“
However, in less than a single term, when an economic slowdown caused a larger budget deficit than expected, George H. W. Bush and the Republican Party quickly folded on that key promise. American voters made them pay for that in both the mid-terms and in 1992, when the elder Bush joined a very small group of US presidents who failed to win reelection. After Bush came Dole, who talked a lot about decency and patriotism but ultimately kept coming back to budgets and federal accountancy.
It took a seriously morally compromised Clinton era to leave a tiny window of opportunity for the moderate morality of George W. Bush, whose “compassionate conservatism” captured just enough voters in the middle to earn him the Oval Office. After winning reelection in 2004, a bad economy and run away deficit made the GOP extremely vulnerable again, especially for the party of price. McCain, like Dole, tried to rattle the old can of patriotism and country, but ultimately his moderate politics, like Dole before him, was just more GOP snoring. Romney and Ryan rattled the old foreign policy can before going right back to snoring about the price of government.
At the end of the Obama era, the American electorate, angry and bored, found itself a new president, all style, no substance, and even less principle. As far as the Libertarian-Conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan? It was long dead, and the very thing Reagan warned us about has come to pass.
The American spirit was eroding.
“And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Lucky for us, however, these ideas are not lost. Those truths that were self-evident in 1776 are still just as self-evident today as they were then. All men and women are still, in fact, created equal and are still, in fact, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these being Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness! There are still those of us who speak the language of Liberty and will share it with the generations of Americans yet to come.
Reagan is lost to us. He is gone. The ideas that he loved, however, the ideas that he venerated above all else are still here and very much alive. Fight on, patriots. Never tire of being extremist, far right loons, for you are in the very best of company. Keep beating the drum. For Liberty. For Justice. For Freedom!
We are all Reagan, now!
Liberty is For The Win!